Tony Gwynn’s high-pitched cackle was the sound of a birthday party, birds chirping, an ice cream truck and a 3,000th hit all rolled into one enormous, joyful package.
Did you ever hear him laugh? It was one of the most inviting sounds life has ever produced. It even made his swing look old and rusty, which should have been scientifically impossible. When something struck Mr. Padre as funny and he tossed back his head and unleashed that cackle, it left you smiling for a month.
Forget the baseball diamond. There are precious few people on this earth blessed with that sort of ability, and on an unspeakably sad Monday in June, there is one fewer.
The 5.5 hole, that dusty patch of infield between the third baseman (5) and shortstop (6) through which Gwynn drove so many of his 3,141 career hits, has closed for good.
To those who doubt the existence of the baseball gods, today might be all the evidence you need that they don’t exist. Tony Gwynn has passed, at 54? Please, say it ain’t so. Sniff.
This was a man who not only was an “artisan with the bat,” as it says so eloquently on his Hall of Fame plaque, but a man who was an artisan in humanity. He had time for everyone, from his Hall of Fame peers to the guy with the leaf blower cleaning the stadium after the lights went out.
From Florida one night in 1995, I phoned him at home in San Diego. It was during spring training, the “replacement players” were out in full force and I wanted to do a real baseball story. Gwynn was hitting .394 the previous August when the strike started and the season ended. Until the end, he believed that he could have and would have hit .400 that year, which would have made him the first major leaguer to do so since his friend and idol Ted Williams, in 1941.
Home on strike, he picked up the telephone and I told him what I wanted.
“Hold on a sec,” he said. “Let me put my dinner back in the oven.”
That was Tony. If the subject was baseball, and hitting, dinner could wait.
He won eight National League batting titles, retired with a .338 lifetime batting average and studied pitchers the way a circling hawk studies mice on the earth below. He was an artist ahead of his time, the Godfather of Video long before the digital age.
Seriously. Many people outside of San Diego might not realize this, but Gwynn hauled monstrous, almost prehistoric, VCR machines with him on the road during the latter half of his career to study at-bats and pitchers long before everyone else in baseball turned to video.
A game in, say, St. Louis, would end and while teammates gathered in the hotel bar or went out for a late-night meal, Gwynn would set up shop upstairs in his hotel room and study video. On many road trips, his wife, Alicia, doubled as his video assistant. She would help tape the games and organize the equipment.
Today, every club has a full-time video position to assemble footage for players to study.
His numbers bordered on silly. He struck out just 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats, the second-fewest whiff rate of any of the 28 men with 3,000 or more career hits. Only Paul Waner (376 in 9,459 at-bats) fanned less. In 1995, Gwynn struck out 15 times in 535 at-bats. In today’s game, some players strike out 15 times before lunch.
In 1997, in one of former Padres beat writer Tom Krasovic’s favorite statistics, Gwynn batted .459 (67-for-146) with 99 RBI with runners in scoring position.
It was at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego that Gwynn first met Williams, and the two developed a growing friendship. They talked hitting the way two surgeons might compare notes on heart procedures. Williams encouraged Gwynn to turn on inside pitches more, and from the mid-1990s on, both Gwynn’s home runs and RBI rates increased.
A 15-time All-Star, Gwynn was so much fun to watch at the Midsummer Classics. Not simply because he reveled while submerged in that atmosphere, but because, during his last several, he was a Pied Piper of sorts. All of the other National League All-Stars flocked to him.
When greatness comes with a welcoming cackle and twinkling eyes, who can resist?
His 1999 All-Star moment in Fenway Park with a fading, golf cart-bound Williams as Gwynn’s own playing career ticked down remains one of the signature moments not only in Gwynn’s career, but in baseball history. As Williams was wheeled to the mound to throw out the first pitch, love and admiration from three generations’ worth of fans washed over him, players congregated in an impromptu love-fest and thousands of flashbulbs popped.
“I remember walking back toward the dugout after that thinking, ‘We’ll never have a moment like this in baseball again,'” Gwynn told me in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park.
As tears flowed throughout the hardball world Monday, I can’t help but flash back to so many memories with Gwynn and think the same.
The NL batting duel with San Francisco’s Will Clark that went down to the final day of the 1989 season. “I lost to the best,” Clark said on that Sunday, and truer words were never spoken.
That hot August night in 1999 in St. Louis’ Busch Stadium when Mark McGwire was on deck for his 500th home run and Gwynn, of the visiting Padres, was two hits away from No. 3,000. McGwire got 500 that night, but Gwynn had to wait until the next evening, in Montreal for his 3,000th.
Gwynn’s face upon taking the World Series stage in Yankee Stadium in 1998, a cross between a kid receiving a new bicycle at Christmas and Lou Gehrig professing he is the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
And the day he was voted into the Hall of Fame with 97.61 percent of the vote, the seventh-highest percentage in Hall of Fame voting history.
Always, after Gwynn retired in 2001, it was a treat bumping into him in another ballpark, at another game, at another Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Except, in Cooperstown last year, Gwynn attended but mostly stayed up in his room all weekend. He didn’t even feel well enough to attend the induction ceremony itself. You knew he was struggling, knew that the cancer that he acknowledged sprung from his years of smokeless tobacco use was doing what few rival pitchers could ever do to him.
It was such a helpless feeling. You prayed for a miracle, for some type of late-inning comeback. Because a baseball world without Tony Gwynn, without that hearty cackle, is a baseball world with a gaping hole in it.
Like, a 5.5 hole.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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